While most will agree that the 2011 Tour de France delivered everything a great race should, it might be premature to hail it as the ‘greatest ever’ - let us regain our breath first, please.
The ‘greatest ever’ claim was perhaps first uttered on Thursday evening, in the aftermath of Andy Schleck’s attack early in the stage, and victory at the Col du Galibier, which left four (arguably five) riders in contention with three days remaining.
Then, understandably, the idea gained momentum with every second that passed of Friday’s thriller to Alpe d’Huez.
By the finish of that stage, it had become - in the minds of some - accepted fact. But maybe there is a stronger claim for Friday to be acknowledged as one of the Tour’s greatest ever single days; certainly the excitement of this brief but explosive up-down-up-down-up stage debunked the myth that epic stages must be long and feature multiple climbs. Christian Prudhomme, the race director, will presumably have taken note.
But that was merely the climax. The final week of this year’s Tour - in particular four consecutive stages, to Gap, Pinerolo, the Galibier and Alpe d’Huez - served up an absolute treat, as rich, densely-packed and almost-indigestible as the local Alpine dish, tartiflette.
Where do you start? The racing was like a throwback to a previous era; it was unpredictable, and seemed to reward those with courage and imagination, from Alberto Contador’s bid to salvage his Tour in the apocalyptic rain on the road to Gap, to Schleck’s Merckx-esque attack not on the final climb of the day - as we’ve come to expect in recent years - but with 65km remaining of the most brutal stage of the race.
And, behind Schleck on the slopes of the Galibier, there was the spectacle of Cadel Evans running out of options, and teammates, and forced to grit his teeth and grind his way up the climb, burying himself in pursuit. We had a good idea at this point, I think, that the race would be between these two, and so it was riveting to see them, effectively, go mano a mano to the Tour’s highest summit finish.
But it was equally enthralling to watch Tommy Voeckler hanging on behind Evans, riding out of his skin in defence of the yellow jersey he’d worn for longer than anyone imagined possible. Remember that he said, on the eve of the Pyrenees, that he’d lose it at Luz Ardiden. Yet here he was, a full week later, clinging on with a stubborness and determination that seemed to defy all commonsense.
I won’t re-live Friday’s stage to Alpe d’Huez - there isn’t enough space. Suffice it to say that this is one that will bear repeat viewing, in its entirety: from the first attack by Johnny Hoogerland (who else?), to Pierre Rolland dancing away from Contador and Samuel Sanchez near the summit of the Alpe. The second part of that sentence doesn’t look right, does it?
Several factors contributed to this Tour’s ‘greatness.’ It would be churlish not to acknowledge Contador, despite the controversy surrounding his participation. In the end, as he struggled to overcome the early loss of time, and suffered two crashes, and appeared a shadow of the climber who dominated the Giro d’Italia in May, he ignited the final week, particularly that stage to Alpe d’Huez. It was appropriate that the three-time winner was awarded the Combativity prize at the end of the stage, but strange - and perhaps even a little poignant - that it was the defending champion’s only trip to the podium during the 2011 Tour.
Voeckler was a story that captivated everyone, winning hearts and inspiring minds. His gurning face, and erratic style on the bike - bobbing like a cyclo-tourist as he embarked on his hopeless chase of Contador and Schleck on the Galibier - ensured that we all shared in his suffering, or at least imagined how it felt. In a word: excruciating.
In Schleck, there is still a sense of potential unfulfilled. But his attack and victory at the Galibier was arguably reminiscent and worthy of his countryman, and one of the greatest ever climbers, Charly Gaul.
And in Evans, most will agree that the Tour has a deserving winner, almost as much for his consistency and series of near-misses as for his performance in 2011 - though that was impressively measured and, like his attack to win the world title in 2009, perfectly executed.
When we catch our breath - or perhaps in a few years, assuming we’re still talking about it - we’ll be able to assess this race properly, and come to a decision about whether it ranks alongside 1964, 1978, 1986, 1989, 1998 (yes - 1998) and other Tours - 2003? 1984? - or might even be hailed the ‘greatest ever.’
I suspect it will be mentioned in the same breath, but not singled out. Because if this Tour has lacked anything, it’s been a sharp-edged rivalry. The race has been close, but there hasn’t been ‘needle’ in the rivalry between the main contenders, or any sense of it being not just a race, but a battle.
For the Tour to gain traction beyond its established fan-base, it needs either a rip-roaring battle, and/or personalities who are either captivating or just, in some almost intangible sense, ‘big’: Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, Fignon and Armstrong are some of the obvious names from the past. It may sound harsh, but none of this year's protagonists quite make it into that category of rider or personality.
There was arguably only one rider whose personality and story transcended the race, and captured the imagination of ordinary people and non-cycling fans (with the notable exception of Australia, where few will now be unaware of Cadel Evans).
Yes, it was the Tommy Tour. Without Voeckler, his story and all he represents, the 2011 Tour would certainly have been good, but it might not have been great.
Richard Moore is the author of Slaying the Badger: LeMond, Hinault and the Greatest Tour de France (Yellow Jersey).